Sunday Thoughts

Since none of you objected to my ramblings from last week, I see no reason not to subject you again to my musings and make it a weekly feature. Give it some thought and you will see how much of a bargain it is for both you and me: you don’t have to read long-winded articles about arcane subjects, and I don’t have to write them. Isn’t that great? Also, having always championed brevity it is more than time for me to practice what I preach – and Sunday is a very apt day to do so.

Warning: The following contains some opinion stated as fact, which doesn’t mean it isn’t open to reasonable discussion. 

Perhaps one reason why so many vintage American and British mysteries are so hard to find while quite common in translation has to do with the books’ respective life expectancies. I’ve been buying lots of vintage English-language paperbacks lately and while they look undeniably better than their French counterparts, they are also much more fragile. Ugly as they are, Série Noire or Le Masque books from seventy years ago are often still sturdy and readable whereas Dell Mapbacks of the same vintage are to be handled with care and in some cases are better left unread. For a book as text to survive it needs first to survive as an object, and how can it do so when it is so frail? As good-shape or merely readable copies become rarer and rarer, the book itself slowly falls onto oblivion. Being pretty is a good thing for a book, but being robust is even better. 

Short stories are wonderful, if underrated, health indicators for writers – provided of course that they write them on a regular basis. A writer being very productive in the field is usually the sign that their muse is alive and kicking whereas a slowdown or an abrupt stop may hint that something’s going wrong – unless of course that is due to them now focusing on novel writing. I grant you this theory needs to be further tested, but there are some arguments in favour of it, one of the strongest being that neither Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr wrote any short fiction in their dire final years.

I’m afraid I’ll never understand people that read mysteries « for the characters » but I can feel some affinity with those that do for the setting as the latter, or more accurately how it interacts with the plot, is increasingly important to me. One of the reasons why I’ve championed and am still championing books such as Charlotte Jay’s Beat Not the Bones or George H. Johnston’s Death Takes Small Bites is because of how well they succeed at making the story they tell appear like a natural outgrowth of its setting – in other words, they tell of events that could never happen elsewhere. Different places generate different stories – and different murders and murderers. Very few crime writers past and present understand this. Most of them think of the setting as a nice way to make the old appear to be new; what they don’t see is that what works with an English country village won’t do with, say, a Mexican pueblo and so on. There is an old feud in the crime fiction community about whether plot or character should come first; I think it’s misguided. While important questions, the How and the Why should always proceed from the Where – it is the only way to make the whole thing coherent and believable.

My previous post about forgotten writers used John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen as examples, probably because anyone with a basic knowledge of the genre has to be familiar at least with their names – but what about Lawrence G. Blochman, George Harmon Coxe, Baynard H. Kendrick, Aaron Marc Stein or Lawrence Treat? Three of them were MWA Grandmasters and the other two were held in high esteem enough to win Edgars, and their books are still quite readable but it was not enough to keep them from being set adrift down the memory hole. Why? I don’t have an answer other than that our culture no longer gives the « solid pros » the respect they deserve. We now want our crime writers to be relevant, to have « something to say » and those that « merely » entertain are being left out. OK, I’m repeating myself.

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